Do Offensive Advertisements Work?

peta-save-whales-billboard The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, commonly known by its acronym PETA, has stirred up a hornet’s nest of publicity with one of its billboards. The billboard is located in Jacksonville, Florida and features an overweight woman with the caption, “Save the whales. Lose the blubber: Go vegetarian.” Since the billboard debuted, there has been much criticism lobbied at PETA.

One blogger declares, “Well, you’ve got our attention, PETA.” She goes on to write, “And we are reminded why we don’t like you. It’s not funny to make fun of people’s weight problems, and to assert you know why they’re occurring is wrong-headed and judgmental and, well, just like you.”

Another blogger writes, “The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), an animal rights organization, has really done it this time. It has obviously stepped out-of-line and doesn’t seem to know the difference between animals and women.” She adds, “PETA should stick to its Mission Statement regarding saving animals and leave exploiting women to Hugh Hefner.”

PETA’s response to the backlash against its billboard is to point out that it is trying to help obese people. PETA released a press release that quoted Tracy Reiman, PETA’s executive vice president, as saying, “Trying to hide your thunder thighs and balloon belly is no day at the beach. PETA has a free Vegetarian Starter Kit for people who want to lose pounds while eating as much as they like.”

Ashley Byrne, a senior campaigner for PETA, said, “Our goal is to help overweight Jacksonville residents — the best way to do that is to go vegetarian. We’re not trying to insult anyone…This is a lifesaving message. If the billboard is shocking, hopefully it will get people’s attention, and help them improve quality of life for themselves and their families…it’s designed to help people.”

Is offensive advertising really effective? In 1994, Jerry W. Thomas of Decision Analyst pointed out, in a white paper titled, Advertising Research: “Advertising which offends the viewer, or is in poor taste, is almost always ineffective.” Former president of the American Advertising Federation, Wally Snyder, asks: “But how can we conclude that a potential customer angered by advertising will purchase the brand?” Or in PETA’s case, listen to the message.

Responding to a PETA advertisement in 2007 that depicted Al Gore as not being a true environmentalist because he eats meat, Keith Akers of the website wrote that PETA’s assumption that all publicity is good, “may not be true.” Akers continued, “At some point, people will write you off no matter what you say.”


According to Akers, a mood shift is occurring in the U.S. Although Americans have always valued individualism, now “there is the growing (and accurate) perception that individualism has been taken too far — that we do not need people to stir things up even more.” Akers characterizes PETA’s advertisements as the “individualist approach of trying to disrupt things to get attention.”

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by